Israel Update for May 2006

David Dolan
David Dolan

As the Palestinians teetered on the brink of civil war during May, Israel's new Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, held his first inner security cabinet meeting focusing on escalating tensions with Iran. This came one week after Israel's UN ambassador-responding to a deadly Palestinian suicide terror attack earlier in the day in Tel Aviv-warned that ominous war clouds are forming over the Middle East, generated by hostile actions and words coming from Iran and Syria, supplemented by the Al Qaida, Hizbullah and Hamas terrorist movements. Towards the end of May, Olmert traveled to Washington to hold his first official meeting with President George Bush, focusing on the growing crisis in the Palestinian zones and the Iranian nuclear threat. Soon after he returned, Iran's proxy Hizbullah force launched a major rocket attack upon army bases and civilian communities in northern Israel, dramatically illustrating growing tensions in the region.

Fierce armed clashes broke out in the Israeli-evacuated Gaza Strip mid month between members of a new Hamas-run security force, loyal to Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, and Oslo peace process-authorized security forces commanded by overall PA leader Mahmoud Abbas. The gunfire exchanges further intensified after unknown assailants attempted to assassinate the head of the PA Intelligence services in the Gaza Strip, Tariq Abu Rajab. Hamas agents were believed to be behind the bombing of an elevator shaft in the Intelligence headquarters building in Gaza City, which instantly killed one of Rajab's bodyguards and left seven others, and the main target himself, seriously wounded.

Rajab is a close friend of Abbas, and a well-known fierce opponent of Hamas. However, Hamas denied that it was behind the blast, which was instead claimed by a previously unknown group calling itself, "The Al Qaida Organization in the State of Palestine." Israeli officials said this was another worrisome sign that the Iraqi Al Qaida branch has fulfilled its stated goal to establish terrorist cells in the Gaza Strip. The group, known to be allied with Hamas, also issued a written threat to murder Abbas. The threat later prompted an Israeli government decision to send sophisticated weapons and security equipment to aid Palestinian bodyguards protecting the beleaguered PA leader.

Abbas had earlier voiced his strong opposition to the establishment of the 3,000 member Hamas armed force, which was placed under the direct command of the Hamas-controlled Interior Ministry. Abbas also refused to cave in to Hamas demands that all PA security personnel, estimated to be some 70,000 men, be placed under Hamas control. The PA leader is said to fear the 3,000 recruits are but the first installment in much larger paramilitary force that Hamas intends to set up in order to undermine the current Oslo-sanctioned security force. Although he promised he would not allow civil war to engulf his people, Abbas-himself the target of at least two known assassination attempts in recent months-is obviously well aware that two "official" rival armed forces operating in the Gaza Strip, one stemming from the PLO Fatah movement and the other from the militant Muslim Hamas group, is a sure recipe for intense violence ahead, if not all out civil war.

Killing Each Other

Internal Palestinian clashes further intensified after the failed assassination attempt upon the PA Gaza security chief. Members of the new Hamas force traded fierce gunfire with PA paramilitary policemen for several hours near the Parliament building in the center of Gaza City. The site of a number of foreign consulates as well, the crossfire caught a top aid to the Jordanian ambassador walking in the area, who was instantly killed. Jordan's King Abdullah strongly denounced the killing, and called for calm to prevail in the PA zones.

Israeli analysts said the Hashemite monarch is justifiably afraid that the violence will not only spill over into Jordan's former West Bank (where Fatah forces are significantly stronger than in the Gaza Strip) but also into his own country-with its majority Palestinian population divided between Islamic fundamentalists who identify with Hamas and backers of the more secular PLO Fatah movement that Abbas heads. This came after Jordanian officials revealed that Syrian agents had been caught attempting to smuggle weapons into the country, believed to be headed for Hamas and Al Qaida underground terror cells that have orders from government leaders in Damascus and Tehran to stir up trouble in Amman, with the eventual goal of toppling the Western-leaning Hashemite regime.

Tensions flared still further on May 24th after Muslim gunmen shot and killed the top commander of all PA security forces in the central Gaza district, Habil Hodhod, who had been leading the confrontation with Hamas forces. In revenge, masked PLO gunmen seized three Hamas fighters outside a mosque, killing one of them and wounding the other two. This was followed hours later by a disturbing sign that the fundamentalist Islamic movement may ultimately emerge completely victorious in its battle with the more secular and moderate PLO Fatah group. Around 1,000 men wearing Fatah uniforms marched down the streets of Gaza City with banners declaring they were switching their loyalty to the radical Hamas group. The next day, a Hamas militiaman was killed and eight Fatah supporters wounded in yet another round of intense gun battles between the rival forces.

Back To The Ballot Box?

Intensifying armed PLO-Hamas clashes and signs that the Fatah movement may be falling apart prompted PA leader Abbas to make a surprise and dramatic announcement on May 25th. He told Hamas PA government officials that if they do not quickly agree to allow him to conduct further peace negotiations with Israel according to principals established by the late PLO leader Yasser Arafat, he would attempt to prevent a full-scale civil war by calling a national referendum sometime in July. Palestinian voters would be asked to decide whether or not the PA should formally abandon the Oslo peace process accords with Israel and revert to all out warfare with the Jewish state, or return to the peace process path that was frozen when massive Palestinian violence began in September 2000.

Abbas said he would draw up a document spelling out the Palestinian Authority's final positions and demands regarding the establishment of a Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, with a portion of eastern Jerusalem as its capital. If the proposal was rejected by a majority of Palestinian voters-thus essentially confirming that the January Hamas electoral triumph was not just a fluke but a real reflection of public opinion-he would bow to Hamas demands to destroy the accords. Analysts said Abbas would undoubtedly resign if he lost the referendum, probably leading to the election of an Islamic militant to head the PA.

The bold gamble caught Israeli officials by surprise. However PM Olmert indicated it was actually in Israel's best interests to know for certain whether serious peace talks with moderate Palestinian partners are possible or not, and such a national vote would make that clear this summer.

Meanwhile Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya signaled a slight moderation in the official Hamas position that making lasting peace with Israel is forbidden by the Quran. He told reporters that Hamas would work to put a permanent halt to all Palestinian terrorist attacks upon Israel if Olmert agreed to evacuate every centimeter of Judea and Samaria and Jerusalem's entire walled Old City-a demand he knew would be rejected by the new Israeli Premier who intends to formally annex at least a third of the disputed territories, and keep all of the Old City under Israeli control.

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